Book Report: Central Otago


Weird, but adorable.

Working in an Old World (continental European) only wine bar for the last year has somewhat stunted my knowledge of New World (everywhere else) wines, so probably a lot of these book reports will be on New World regions. Again, this book report is from Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson’s inestimable World Atlas of Wine, Sixth Edition and Guildsomm’s study guides.

Central Otago is the world’s southernmost wine region, located at the far southern tip of New Zeland. Additionally, it has the highest altitude of any region in New Zeland. The climate is quite cool throughout most of the year, but the summers, though short, are generally quite warm with large diurnal (day-night) shifts. Keeping temperatures low at night, but high during the day is important to maintain alcohol-acid balance in the wines: check out my previous post on this here.

The region has recently seen an explosion in viticulture, particularly in the production of Pinot Noir, its specialty grape. Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are also reportedly planted in notable quantities. In 1997, there were only 500 acres of vines with 14 producers. As of 2006, 82 producers are working 2,800 acres of vines. This, obviously, makes vine age a real challenge to quality wines, as many of the vineyards simply haven’t had the time to mature and develop the deep root systems required to produce top-flight fruit.

An ozone hole (yikes!) directly over this portion of New Zeland makes, “…wines of less than 14% alcohol…relatively rare,” according to Jancis and Hugh. Now, whether this is an excess of solar radiation or simply producers pushing for phenolic (aroma-giving hydrocarbon) ripeness and winding up with too much sugar would require research*.

The climate is extremely dry, making rot an infrequent viticultural hazard, but necessitates (easy) irrigation out of the many rivers which traverse the region. Soils are mostly fast-draining loess with some gravel and schist, very similar to the more-well-known Marlborogh, which is on the northern tip of of the South Island.

Central Otago has several sub-regions, including Alexandra, which was first planted in the 1980s and contains the winery closest to the South Pole (as of 2007), Black Ridge. The Gibbston sub-region to the north and west, is cooler, but contains some excellent exposures on the north-facing slopes of the Kawarau Gorge. Between these two is Bannockburn, where the Cromwell Gorge meets Lake Dunstan and the Kawarau Gorge to from an upside-down “T” with the lake as its north-south base and the two gorges meeting and forming an east-west finial. Bannockburn is currently the most intensively planted sub-region. I would show you a map, but, you know, those are all copywright protected…and I’m broke.

Immediately north of Bannockburn, at the southern end of Lake Dunstan, is Lowburn. Bendigo is the northern end of the lake. About 25 kilometers to the Northwest of Bendigo is Wanaka, the furthest north, and final sub-region of Central Otago.

Worth noting is that Northeast Otago (not a sub-region of Central Otago), is currently being planted, after it was discovered to have an abundance of limestone soils, which are quite similar to those of Burgundy.

* Ah, an idea! I should interview someone who visited…

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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